Catering workers only being given standard minimum
Michael Milne is fighting for the correct pay for hundreds of colleagues
April 9, 2021
Catering staff at Ealing borough schools have branded the council “a disgrace” for failing to make sure they are paid the London Living Wage for the last eight years since it became an accredited living wage employer.
Michael Milne, an assistant cook, who is paid the standard paid minimum wage under the contract for Ealing Council, along with 300 colleagues, has accused the authority of “failing them” and is calling for the workers to be paid London Living Wage or have the council’s accreditation revoked.
Ealing Council joined the Living Wage Foundation in 2013, which means it has to pay living wage to direct employees, and have a plan in place for uplifting contracted staff’s pay to meet the standard.
But despite this, Michael realised he and colleagues were being missed off the council’s obligations in December, and has been campaigning to change it ever since.
The 55-year-old said the catering staff contract with Ealing Council has been renewed multiple times in the three years he has worked as a cook, yet nothing to raise their pay has been done.
London Living Wage is currently £10.85, while minimum wage, before it was raised this month was £8.72 an hour. It is now £8.91.
On what being short-changed means for his colleagues, who are predominantly made up of women and from ethnic minority backgrounds, Michael said, “My colleagues have differing perspectives, one would have enjoyed the satisfaction of no longer claiming Universal Credit, another spent many weeks on SSP [Statutory Sick Pay] following surgery could have accrued savings to offset reduced income.
“Another could have provided computers for their children’s Covid home learning, another long-standing employee could have retired!”
He added, “My aim is to achieve the London Living Wage starting with the new contract which is switching from September, that is my main aim, but there are all sorts of issues.
He believes Ealing Council has been saving for eight years from the difference between the two wages to the tune of £1.5m, as it would have had to pay a lot more for the contractor if it was paying its employees London Living Wage.
He feels this should be distributed fairly amongst the staff who have lost out.
The Hanwell resident said the staff’s morale is “rock bottom” with employees often off for Covid isolation, illness or stress.
The contract is currently run by Harrison Catering for around 55 schools in Ealing borough, but the tender has been secured for a new provider, ISS Education, to take over the contract from July.
In the weeks up to Easter, Michael said the kitchen staff were left to pick up the shortfall with one colleague shielding and another off work due to stress, but no additional help was given and no pay incentive.
The father-of-one said, “The company I work for maintains a family ethos, and we’re asked to do more for the family above and beyond what we are paid to do and then we find out we are not even on the right rate…
“The bottom line is we feed kids and it’s great, that’s the only reason I go in, and we find out this the whole family ethos of the company is just fake, it’s a shame.”
For Michael, as his family’s secondary income provider, he wonders whether this financial security has made him more confident to speak out, while many of his colleagues are the main provider for their families.
He added, “Although the story is about minimum wage, it is also about how Ealing Council, a Labour-led local authority, have failed us, ignored us and denied us engagement. It’s a disgrace.”
Unison representatives said talks began with the council before Easter, with another meeting lined up soon.
Schools convenor for Ealing Unison, Danny Judge, said Ealing Council are responsible for tendering the contracts and therefore should be putting conditions in place for staff to be paid a living wage as part of the criteria for the contract.
“We believe they are failing in their obligation to carry out their duties as an accredited living wage employer,” he said.
“Our view is that they are shamefully not doing what they should be doing.”
But he added, “I think we are possibly getting through, but I don’t know how quickly they are trying to put those right. New contract starts in July, a five year contract. I’m fearful they are still going to say we have got five years to get this right.
“They’ve had so long and failed for so long, lots of those people are residents of the borough in Ealing as well.”
The representative said the reason given by the council for not paying living wage was due to a lack of funds to do so, but he said early evidence suggests that some schools have made money from the contracts, so the claim is “questionable”.
The situation has also raised concerns about whether other third party contractors indirectly employed by the council are also being underpaid.
It is understood work is ongoing at Ealing Council and an update on the situation is expected within the current school year.
An Ealing Council spokesperson said, “The council is working with the Ealing Schools Catering Consortium, along with representative unions and the Living Wage Foundation, to continue to increase the pay of the lowest paid staff to bring this in line with the London Living Wage.”
Michael has also questioned the authority of the body on how effectively it holds its signed up employers to account.
Having first got in touch with the foundation to raise concerns in January, Michael believes it’s “outrageous” for it to have taken three months to arrange a meeting with the council, and says it is up to employees to raise the issue before action is taken.
He added, “That’s us £300,000 out of pocket for starters.”
Director of the Living Wage Foundation, Laura Gardiner, said, “There are millions of workers within Living Wage employers and as a result we rely on whistle-blowers to identify non-compliance. We have been in discussion with the whistle-blower from the catering staff contracted to Ealing Council since they first raised concerns in January, and understand and share their frustration that this is yet to be resolved.
“Our priority in these situations is to work with employers – particularly in unprecedented economic times such as these – as this is the best way of securing pay rises for low-paid workers. This is why we have been seeking discussions with Ealing Council on this matter as an immediate priority.
“All Living Wage Employers are required to pay directly employed staff the Living Wage and to have a clear plan for uplifting all contract staff as soon as possible, recognising the complexity and long-term nature of certain contracts. Those employers that fail to meet these requirements will have their accreditation removed and will be unable to refer to themselves as a Living Wage employer.”
Anahita Hossein-Pour - Local Democracy Reporter